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Bill Straub: Does the Trump cult even remember when they first sold out? Does Rob Portman?

This is a column written more in sorrow than anger, stealing a reference from Shakespeare, about a man who once upon a time stood up to President Donald J. Trump but who has since succumbed to his wiles, folding like a cardboard suitcase in the presence of President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom.

In 1994 I was chosen to serve as the Washington correspondent for the late, lamented Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post and as a result met Rob Portman, the newly-elected congressman from Terrace Park in Ohio’s 2nd Congressional District.

Even then it seemed Portman was a cut above most of the other 434 members of the House. Smart – Dartmouth and then University of Michigan Law School – affable, handsome and seemingly experienced beyond his years, it appeared that he was headed for big things.

Portman was, frankly, a pleasure to cover, not only because he was a good guy but because he was never reluctant to help out a reporter who found himself in a jam or hide when push came to shove on a legislative topic. He was, and is, a conservative, very conservative, in fact, but it didn’t stop him from working with Democrats on areas where their interests converged.

Rob Portman

Portman worked diligently on legislation with Rep. Louis Stokes, R-OH, from Cleveland, to create the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which sits on the banks of the Ohio River in Cincinnati. And got together with Ben Cardin, first a congressman and now a senator from Maryland, on a number of key pieces of legislation.

As far as I recollect, and I was in contact with him or his office on an almost daily basis, Portman never badmouthed anyone and was forever focused on getting things done for the region he represented and the nation. We lost contact somewhere along the way – I went on to cover the White House for Scripps Howard and Portman left Congress to serve as U.S. Trade Representative and director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush before successfully running for the Senate in 2010. He has been ensconced there since.

Regardless, I followed his career with interest. In October 2016, in a stunning and politically brave move, he retracted his endorsement of Trump for president after the release of the so-called Access Hollywood tape depicting Trump offering extremely lewd thoughts about women. Portman said he would instead write in the name of Mike Pence, the GOP choice for vice president.

Nonetheless, history shows that Trump prevailed and the nation hasn’t been the same since.

Neither has Rob Portman.

According to FiveThirtyEight.com, Portman has voted in line with Trump’s political position 91.4 percent of the time, placing him firmly in the president’s camp.

That figure may not be all that surprising. Both Trump and Portman share a very conservative political philosophy. Portman has on occasion, in fact, publicly deviated from the president’s stated views, particularly as it relates to tariffs, a subject that, as the nation’s former trade representative, Portman is very familiar with.

But Portman has generally assumed a go-along-to-get-along approach to Trump, thus joining the ranks of the president’s enablers, essentially providing the president carte blanche to rip the nation asunder, a task he has performed with relish.

KyForward’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

It is natural, perhaps even necessary, for a member of the House or Senate to support the president of the United States who happens to be a member of his or her own party. That’s true with Democrats as well as Republicans.

But there’s also a time when enough is enough. Trump crossed the Rubicon long ago. Portman, who once boldly opposed this criminal of a president before he assumed office, has stood by with barely concealed disinterest.

Portman has seemingly fallen into the same trap as most of the other GOP members of the Senate – Trump passes muster as long as he continues to nominate right-wingers to the judiciary, doesn’t stand in the way of individual legislative initiatives or say mean things about them, regardless of the real damage he perpetuates on the body politic.

It’s proved a consistent pattern. And the impeachment contretemps shows just how far down the road he has traveled.

Portman acknowledged that “some” of Trump’s actions in the Ukraine affair “including asking a foreign country to investigate a potential political opponent and the delay of aid to Ukraine – were wrong and inappropriate.” Yet he voted against hearing witnesses – “processing additional witnesses will take weeks if not months, and it’s time for the House and Senate to get back to addressing the issues the American people are most concerned about” – and voted to acquit Trump of the charges – “But I do not believe that the president’s actions rise to the level of removing a duly-elected president from office and taking him off the ballot in the middle of an election.”

Now one could ask if a president colluding with a foreign government through blackmail with the aim of destroying the political chances of a potential rival – in this case, former Vice President Joe Biden – doesn’t reach the level of removal, what exactly does.

But Portman goes on, asserting that “House Democrats sent the Senate a flawed case,” maintaining this line after acknowledging that the case was proven so there was no need for additional witnesses.

Now it would obviously have been excruciating for Portman to vote to oust a fellow Republican from office. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, was the lone wolf to display such fortitude. But the trial was a fraud, and Portman is a man smart enough to know that.

Even given a pass on the impeachment vote, Portman’s later rationalizing is breathtaking, particularly talking about a man, Trump, who never admits wrongdoing and is basically a totalitarian.

“All the information’s out there so I think he’s listening, I really do,” Portman said. “And I do think it will have an impact.” 

Really? Here’s Trump taking a victory lap in the East Room of the White House: “We went through hell, unfairly, did nothing wrong — did nothing wrong.”

And what has he done since the judgment came down that attracted Portman’s hope that the president is “listening?”

• He not only fired Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a member of the National Security staff who raised a red flag about the president’s actions and testified before the House impeachment panel, but his twin brother, Yevgeny, who served as a senior NSC lawyer, who was not involved in the matter. Trump also suggested that the U.S. Army should consider disciplinary actions against Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who apparently didn’t have bone spurs to fall back on.

• He recalled now-former European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland who, likewise, testified before the House panel, to the president’s chagrin.

• He made a mess out of the annual National Prayer Breakfast, viciously attacking his political foes as “very dishonest and corrupt people.”

• He has basically assumed complete control of the Department of Justice with his attorney general, William Barr, proving to be as corrupt as he is. Four federal prosecutors left the case against Trump’s crony Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress and tampering with a witness, after the president screamed about the recommended nine-year sentence, leaving Barr to move in and reject the proposal.

“You can’t trust this president to do the right thing,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-CA, the lead House impeachment manager, with Portman in attendance “He will not change, and you know it.”

The only thing that has changed now is Trump feels empowered to carry out every act of retribution he has ever considered, knowing the Republican Senate will let him get away with anything.

Portman’s a smart guy. He knew what Trump had in store. And he knows it will go on and on, world without end.

I’m sorry, but it’s sad to see a man who offered so much promise slide down to the level of the likes of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Louisville, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, who were lost causes from the get-go. With those two, one can cite the character Rudy Baylor, from the film, “The Rainmaker,’’ who asked an opposing attorney, “Do you even remember when you first sold out?”

Portman is now, officially one of the enablers. And it goes beyond that. He retracted his support for Trump in 2016 because of misogyny. Since then Trump has violated every norm, every decency, applicable to the presidency of the United States. And he colluded with a foreign interest to undermine the 2020 election.

Portman’s response?

“I’m going to vote for him, and I’m helping him, and I’m endorsing him,’’ Portman told CNBC.
“He’s done a lot of great things.”


Welcome to the cult.

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